The Present Is Alive. The Past Can Be, Too.
March 31, 2021 § 12 Comments
By Maggie Pahos
My mom died when I was twenty-two, and four months later, I boarded a plane for Ghana—to try to find solid ground, to be touched by something other than my own life, to remember what was still beautiful in the world. For eleven months, I traveled with my boyfriend, Will, onto South Africa, and then to Europe. When we landed back in the States, I applied for MFA programs, and the following year, I started as a nonfiction student at Chatham University, where I began the manuscript for She Made You That Way—the story of my mom’s life and death and those eleven months Will and I traveled.
My mom had died two-and-a-half years after a re-diagnosis of breast cancer. It was a slow process, and painful and beautiful and bewildering and harrowing and surreal and a mess, in the way slow deaths can be. I’d just graduated college, and my mom was becoming my best friend, so her death completely devoured me, that age-old description of grief as a wave, a tidal force so powerful and consuming all you can do is hold your breath and hope you live long enough to again, one day, find air.
When I started writing the manuscript, my instinct was to write in present tense. I love reading and writing present tense narratives. There’s an urgency I find compelling and alert in the present, a language not tamped down by distance and time. But as part of my courses at Chatham, I was starting to study memoir in earnest and noticed most memoirs are written in past tense. For good reason. Much of the joy and beauty of memoir is its ability to shed light, offer insight, and infuse wisdom based on the unique human ability to make meaning out of trauma and chaos and heartbreak. By creating vantage points at various places in time from which to perch and convey these insights, a writer can create complexity and differing perspectives for the reader. Present tense, so scene-based and immediate, can make it harder, though, of course, not impossible, to do this.
But that kind of reflection and wisdom offering memoir can provide wasn’t my goal. I knew I had no wisdom to give. I wasn’t capable of reflecting. Each time I tried to write in past tense, I grew a feeling under my skin, a physical sensation—a man following behind me at night, a bad phone call about to come in, a foreign sound on the dark porch—telling me something was wrong. I abandoned the past tense as quickly as I tried it each time.
There was that lurking sense of unease but also a crush of dishonesty. It felt instantly like I was writing fiction instead of my own life, writing about a stranger named Maggie who went through something I didn’t know. My mom’s death still completely calibrated my life, so present it defined my every move. To act as though I could look back on it as something of the past, something separate from me, was like shoplifting or cheating on a test, a violation and probably not worth it. The alarm bells of inauthenticity screamed in my ears. My skin felt like someone else’s, and it disgusted me. And it seemed a disservice to her. I was going to make a packaged artifact of her life in the form of a book? An inert, unfeeling thing in past tense, deadly finite?
So, in present tense, alive and breathing and full of moving possibilities—full of her—I stayed.
Every so often, I would change a couple sentences in the manuscript to past tense, just to see how they read, and each time, that feeling. Then one day, a few years into writing, I tried it, and nothing happened. I converted a few more sentences, waiting to feel ill, and still no ick, no urge to jump ship. I did this for a whole paragraph, read it back to myself, and for the first time, it sounded true. I could suddenly see all the doors it would lead me to on top of its truth, the lateral movements and jumps in time. Maybe I would even find a way to reflect.
Eventually, I changed the entire manuscript to past tense, and that’s how it will stay. But I know why the present tense felt like the only true way for so long. Part of me thought I could keep her alive if I wrote about her as if she actually still were. She is sleeping, she walks to her closet, she tells me, “I love you so.” No “ate” or “snored” or “laughed.” No. Those verbs were for dead people. I could keep her with me if she was active in the present. I could make it so she wasn’t fully gone. She could still breathe beside me. I could still stand with her in a room.
I won’t go so far as to say I offer any kind of wisdom in my manuscript, past tense as it now may be. But I do feel like I’ve finally done justice to her, to my family, to Will, to myself because I’m able to explore us all through the many dimensions we contain, to show development, change, and regression across time and space. While past tense isn’t the best way to tell every story, not by a long shot, it seems to be working now for this one.
I’ve been able to track my grief through how I’ve been able to write about it, and it’s been a humbling and gratifying experience, one that’s held my hand and kept me on some kind of path through the dark woods. Even in the past tense, I get to sit down with my mom each day at my computer, to hear her words, and see her smile. “I love you,” she said. She says. She pulls me to her. “You’ll always be my baby.”
Maggie Pahos is a writer and teacher living in Portland, Oregon. She holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Chatham University, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Hippocampus Magazine, Bark, the Rumpus, Flyway, Nowhere, Hobart, and elsewhere. In the summers, she leads trips for National Geographic Student Expeditions. You can find more of her writing at www.maggiepahos.com.